Sutton reaches the mountaintop Cooperstown is peak for 324-game winner

July 26, 1998|By Phil Jackman | Phil Jackman,SUN STAFF

The night Don Sutton registered his 300th victory, a 5-1 three-hitter against the Texas Rangers a dozen years ago, he said: "I don't need bells and whistles to make me feel good about something."

He did, however, feel that the sheer weight of the pitching numbers he had piled up with five teams over 21 seasons had earned him a spot in the Hall of Fame. And fairly early on in his career, Sutton let it be known that 300 victories and the Hall of Fame were a couple of the "mountains" he planned on climbing.

Just to make sure his resume wasn't lacking, the right-hander pushed on for two more seasons and won 24 more games. He was eligible for Cooperstown in 1994, but missed out until this year when the electorate (the Baseball Writers' Association of America) finally voted him in.

The wait was excruciating -- "I was very disappointed the first year, but then I realized how senseless worrying was because I had no control over the situation," he says.

Sutton made the roster of the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1966 as a 20-year-old and after two seasons of junior-college baseball in Florida. He didn't see himself as a green kid. "Heck, I was nine years in the minors before I began getting paid, my time starting as a Little Leaguer. When I was 12, other kids were playing for fun, but I was preparing to learn the game," he says proudly.

Basically, Sutton's philosophy is, "I never asked to be liked. I never wanted to be put on a pedestal. I wanted to be appreciated, not at the front end but at the back end." In other words, with satisfactory contracts during his playing days and, if his record warranted it, a plaque in the building in Cooperstown some day.

"I'm an if-then kind of guy," he said. "If I do this and I do that, then so-and-so follows." His "ifs" Sutton were 300 wins (he finished with 324), 3,000 strikeouts (3,574) and 5,000 innings pitched (5,282). But, as mentioned, inclusion at Cooperstown has taken time.

Sutton half expected it: "What I've done has been methodical and boring, not spectacular."

It was after pitching 15 seasons and winning 230 games with the Dodgers that Sutton decided to see what life was like outside southern California. Actually, if it wasn't for a bum decision by the Orioles several years before, he would have been in a different league and on a different coast all those years.

The time was 1967 and, at the winter meetings, the Orioles were on the prowl for a young arm or two and everyone knew it, and they had a great commodity to trade: Luis Aparicio. The future Hall of Famer was expendable as Mark Belanger was ready to take over at shortstop. Instantly, Orioles player personnel director Harry Dalton was surrounded by suitors. Soon it became apparent the chief bidders would be the Dodgers and Chicago White Sox.

"I was on military duty with the Army at Fort Gordon, Ga., and I heard the rumors," Sutton said. "The deal made sense. I was thinking, 'Baltimore, here I come.' I think it would have been fun pitching in the rotation the team ended up with all those years [Jim Palmer, Dave McNally and Mike Cuellar]."

The bidding went briskly for a couple of days before Dalton opted for the pitcher the White Sox offered, Bruce Howard. With nTC the White Sox, Howard had gone 3-10 in 1967 and had a 25-25 record over five years. He didn't make it through the season with the Orioles, pitching in 10 games in 1968 and going 0-2.

Sutton, in two full seasons with the Dodgers, carried a 23-27 record and was a bear for work, knocking off about 230 innings each year.

Dalton, explaining his preference, hit upon a classic: "Sutton throws a spitter and he won't be able to get away with it in the American League." Listeners nearly gagged.

Sutton didn't throw a spitter. He could scuff or cut a ball with the best of them but, as he points out to this day, "I was the most accused and least convicted man in America."

Although Baltimore never got around to see Sutton in an Orioles uniform, it would finally see him. Late in August 1982, the Milwaukee Brewers were looking for a pitcher to solidify their chances for the AL East Division title.

Dalton was now calling the shots in Milwaukee and he grabbed Sutton for the stretch run, saying, "We're excited. Sutton was our objective all along."

"I was shocked," Sutton said. "It wasn't even rumored."

Cut to the final weekend of the 1982 campaign. Milwaukee came to Baltimore with a three-game lead facing a four-game series. The Orioles won the first three games, scoring 26 runs on 46 hits, setting up a one-game showdown with Sutton opposing Palmer.

Sutton pitched a strong eight innings that day as the Brewers romped into the playoffs and, ultimately, the World Series by a 10-2 score. "One of my three or four most memorable games," he says.

Sutton later pitched for Oakland, California and the Dodgers again before being released by the Dodgers in mid-1988 at age 43.

A line from Walter Alston, Sutton's first major-league manager and a Hall of Famer, is one of the things Sutton is most proud of. Alston said: "The tougher it got, the better Sutton was. When everything was on the line he wanted the ball and I wanted him to have it."

The Dodgers' staff included two other pretty good pitchers at the time, Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale.

Another milestone accomplished by Sutton is the fact that over 23 seasons he never spent a day on the disabled list. Forget the wins, strikeouts and the rest of it, that alone should have qualified him for Cooperstown.

Pub Date: 7/26/98

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